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Friday, 9 June 2017

Knotty, Knotty… HMS Pinafore pokes fun at POTUS

Laurie Murdoch as The Rt. hon. Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First
Lord of the Admiralty (centre), with members of the company.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Book and lyrics by W.S. Gilbert; Music by Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Lezlie Wade
Designed by Doglas Paraschuk (set), Patrick Clark (costumes), Wendy Greenwood (lighting), Nick Bottomley (projections), Peter McBoyle (sound), John Stead (fights)
Featuring Lisa Horner, Laurie Murdoch, Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Steve Ross, Brad Rudy, Mark Urhe

Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey.  Although initially popular for their subversive nature or poking fun at themselves as privileged white men (there is some debate on this), it can be hard to translate either the virtuosic musical style and vocals or Victoriana nationalism and satire into a modern-day context.

Director Lezlie Wade brings her vision of HMS Pinafore a few decades ahead of the Victorian era into WWI, when British pride was on another upswing. Fans of the wildly popular Downton Abbey will no doubt be familiar with this era, when once stately homes were appropriated by various government departments for the war effort, and Ms. Wade uses this historical fact to frame her production quite well; an estate becomes a convalescent home for injured naval personnel, with the musical becoming a New Year’s Eve diversion put on to entertain the sailors. In this context it is not shocking to see one sailor with disfiguring injuries, and he morphs into the character Dick Deadeye, one of the antagonists of the play.
Lisa Horner as Little Buttercup (centre) with members of the company.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The set, designed by Douglas Paraschuk, also morphs quite brilliantly from estate foyer to the HMS Pinafore, roughly resembling an armoured cruiser or admiralty trawler, with the double staircases allowing some vintage Vaudevillian capering amongst the many sailors, sisters, cousins and aunts that make up the chorus, including a great Charlie Chaplin foot-stuck-bucket-nearly-falling-down-the-stairs bit. 

Ms. Wade brings the satire firmly into the 21st c,. however, with the appearance of The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty, played brilliantly by Laurie Murdoch. Given that this character is based on a real man who, never having set foot on a ship or in the sea (read: never held a political office) was appointed (read: elected) to the most important seat in a time of great national uncertainty (you get it now)… well. Give Mr. Murdoch an apricot-coloured wig perpetually askew and you can hardly miss the point.  Mr. Murdoch is spot-on with the patter, never misses a comedic pop, and his diminutive stature gives this Admiral a ridiculousness on par with the shenanigans south of the 49thIMHO he steals the show, though his brothers and sisters-in-arms are not far behind.

 Mark Urhe and Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Ralph Rackshaw and Josephine.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
The story follows young sailor Ralph and his love for Josephine, his Captain’s daughter. Gilbert and Sullivan use the setting of a military ship to illustrate the absurdity – and hypocrisy – of class lines; as the captain’s daughter Josephine adores Ralph but feels he is below her rank, and is considering marriage to the foolish Admiral to preserve her station. This being G&S there is a barely-concealed dénouement in the end that reverses Ralph and Josephine’s fortunes making it ok for them to marry, and though the neat final pairings are still problematic to a 21st c audience, happy endings were a forgone conclusion so we might as well enjoy them.

The main couple in question, Josephine and Ralph, are given life by a sweetly comedic Jennifer Rider-Shaw and Mark Uhre, barely recognizable from his other superlative performance as Benny Southstreet in Guys and Dolls. They make a charming if chaste pair (you can’t get rid of all Victoriana at once), and are supported in their romantic liaisons by all the swooning sailors, sisters, cousins and aunts, gleefully playing along in the background; in particular the cute-as-a-mother-of-pearl-button Glynis Ranney. The dastardly Dick Deadeye is gamely played up by Brad Rudy, and Steve Ross and Lisa Horner are unforgettable as the beleaguered-father/beloved Captain and the devoted, fretting Little Buttercup.

Operetta really is not my favourite, but I love theatre that subverts my expectations, so I can fully appreciate this production of HMS Pinafore.  It continues in repertory until Oct. 21 at the Avon Theatre.

Steve Ross as Captain Cocoran, with members of the company.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

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